The mother of an Orleans Parish Prison inmate who hanged himself last year filed a lawsuit in federal court this week against Sheriff Marlin Gusman and several jail officials, claiming deputies denied her son psychiatric treatment and ignored “manifest signs” that he intended to take his own life.
The 40-page lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court, says Clifton Morgan’s September 2013 death was “entirely preventable.”
“Although Mr. Morgan pleaded with the defendants to provide him his medication and repeatedly told them that he was feeling suicidal, the defendants refused to provide him proper care,” the lawsuit alleges. “Mr. Morgan consequently spiraled into a deep depression, including a near-catatonic episode that warranted hospitalization.”
Philip Stelly, a Gusman spokesman, said the Sheriff’s Office does not comment on pending litigation.
The New Orleans Advocate filed a public-records request seeking documents related to Morgan’s death in January, but the Sheriff’s Office has yet to provide the materials.
The lawsuit refers to dozens of previous jail deaths and invokes a federal consent decree that took effect shortly after Morgan’s Sept. 28 death. The decree, which had been approved by U.S. District Judge Lance Africk in June, called for a wide range of reforms at the jail, including provisions intended to prevent inmate suicides.
The jail’s treatment of mentally ill inmates was among the many reasons Africk found the jail’s conditions unconstitutional and signed off on the overhaul.
Also noted in the lawsuit are letters sent by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2009 and 2012 warning Gusman of inadequate suicide prevention at the lockup. Despite those warnings, the lawsuit alleges, Gusman failed to ensure mental-health treatment at the jail “conformed with community standards and constitutional standards.”
The Morgan case “is yet another example of an intransigent pattern, practice and culture of deliberate indifference and culpable negligence that has resulted in at least 43 in-custody deaths at OPSO since April 2006,” the lawsuit claims.
Morgan, 28, was booked into the jail Sept. 16 with simple burglary. At the time of his death, authorities said he had been sent to the psychiatric tier and placed on a suicide watch. He was taken Sept. 25 to LSU Interim Hospital for an evaluation but returned the same day.
Sheriff’s officials have said Morgan asked to be removed from his assigned tier and that he was placed in a holding cell across from a watch commander’s office. He was later found unresponsive in that cell and pronounced dead after officials failed to resuscitate him.
The lawsuit alleges a series of negligent acts on the part of several jail officials, beginning with a screening deputy who supposedly failed to notice that Morgan “needed to be transferred to a hospital immediately for treatment.”
Morgan told jail staff he had been taking the medication Seroquel for three years and that he’d last taken it the day before he was booked, the lawsuit says. He also told them he was being treated for schizophrenia locally, but according to the lawsuit, jail officials failed to obtain related medical records from the Algiers Behavioral Health Center.
When Morgan was placed on suicide watch, the lawsuit claims, he was “unjustifiably and without reason deprived of the psychotropic medications he had been taking for three years.”
“Deprived of the medicine that had helped to stabilize him for three years prior to his incarceration, Mr. Morgan’s behavior became increasingly bizarre,” the lawsuit says. “Approximately eight days after his incarceration, he was found lying on the floor of his cell in a near-catatonic state.”
Jail officials took Morgan to the hospital for an examination, the lawsuit says, and returned him to OPP “with the direction that he be placed on the psychiatric unit and his condition monitored.”
The lawsuit accuses jail officials of returning Morgan to the general prison population “just two days after he returned from the hospital” and also faults them for placing him in an isolation cell.
That cell was not suicide-resistant and had several ways that inmates can use to harm themselves, including the bars on the cell, the lawsuit alleges.
“There was no justifiable reason to place Mr. Morgan in isolation and then fail to check on him given his condition and the risk of serious bodily harm,” attorneys Stephen Haedicke and Emily Faye Ratner wrote in the lawsuit. “Alternatively, these defendants placed Mr. Morgan in isolation to punish him for some perceived misbehavior.”
Follow Jim Mustian on Twitter, @JimMustian.